WASHINGTON — If Florida gets its way with the 2008 presidential campaign, it could signal the end of the primary system that has chosen major party nominees for half a century.
The custom of candidates meeting voters one by one in living rooms and coffee shops in small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire — a 50-year tradition that replaced the old system of party bosses picking candidates in smoke-filled rooms — would be finished.
The next way of selecting nominees likely would be a national primary — all states voting the same day.
The reason is that Florida is moving its primary date to Jan. 29, ahead of other big states in defiance of party rules and into the period reserved for a handful of small states. Florida's Republican legislature and governor approved the move, and the state's Democratic Party agreed last week.
Florida's move could set off a stampede among other states to vote earlier in the presidential-nomination process. Michigan Democrats, for example, are threatening to accelerate their voting date. That could trigger the traditional leaders — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — to accelerate theirs, perhaps into late 2007.
The rationale from Florida Democrats is self-serving.
First, they argue that they would disenfranchise their state's voters if they had to vote after Jan. 29, because the nominee will likely be effectively chosen by then, and a late primary wouldn't matter.
"The potential for disenfranchisement with any other option ... was just too great. Florida Democrats cannot and will not disenfranchise voters," said state party chairwoman Karen Thurman.
That means that anyone who votes in primaries or caucuses after Jan. 29 — as tens of millions of voters are scheduled to do — will effectively forfeit his or her vote or is participating in something less than a free, fair or meaningful election.
The only logical answer to that is to let all states vote at the same time. We're moving that way already: Some 23 states, including California, New York and Illinois, are now set to vote on Feb. 5. (Florida's trying to get the jump on them and scheduled its primary on the same day as South Carolina's. Guess which of those two states will see more of the Democratic candidates now.)
Another argument is that Florida is a better demographic match to the country than the earlier states and thus should have an outsized say in picking the nominee.
Demographic diversity in the early selection process was the goal last year when the Democratic National Committee added two new states to its early voting calendar. Now, largely white Iowa plans to hold caucuses on Jan. 14, then Nevada with its large Hispanic population on Jan. 19, then largely white New Hampshire on Jan. 22, then South Carolina, with a large African-American vote, on Jan. 29.
None is a perfect demographic slice of the United States — if that's the criteria for deciding which state votes first — but neither is Florida.
Take the Hispanic vote. In South Florida, Hispanic politics centers on Cuba. But not in New York, where Puerto Ricans dominate Hispanic affairs, or in California, where Mexicans do.
The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee will take up the Florida question on Aug. 25. Under its rules, it should have little choice but to threaten to take away half the state's delegates to the national convention and all delegates awarded to any candidate who campaigns in the state.
But don't hold your breath waiting for that to actually happen.
By the time of the Democratic National Convention next summer in Denver, the party nominee will be identified — and he or she will be loath to punish a state with such a big say in the general election.
"Florida Democrats have spoken, and we have listened," Thurman said in explaining the move to a Jan. 29 primary. In the end, the rest of the party could end up listening as well.